July 10th, 2013

Learning with Students vs. Doing for Students


Every now and again I come across a quote that follows me around for the rest of the day, if not several days. That happened this week and here’s the quote, “I see myself as a learner first, thus I create my classes with learners, not for them ….”

When I think about classes I think about myself as a teacher first. So, I’ve been trying to imagine facing a teaching task from the perspective of a learner.
We do think about ourselves as learners in a generic, holistic way when we design courses. I hear it often in my workshops. “I try to make it a class I’d like to take.” Or, on the other side, “I work to avoid those things about classes I didn’t like when I was a student.” Taking this stance assumes that we and our students do and don’t like the same things and that’s a pretty tenuous assumption, especially for those of us who haven’t taken courses for some years. It might be a viable premise if we were comparing our likes with those of other really bright students, but is our thinking that fine tuned?

The quote represents another push away from teaching and toward learning. But the preposition “with” makes it something more than just another admonition to be more learner-centered. Classes are created with learners, not for them. Even given my long-standing interest in learner-centered teaching, I have to be honest and admit, I created courses and now create workshops for learners, not with them.

How would a teacher thinking of herself as a learner go about creating courses with students? The quote’s author does it with the syllabus, which she points out is typically “constructed solely from the teacher’s interests, goals, and expectations or requirements leaving little room for student input.” (p. 41) In other words, what we distribute to students on the first day of class is a done deal. She contrasts that with a syllabus that “perform[s] as a living, negotiated document.” (p. 41) It begins with these four questions:

  • What topics or areas are of greatest interest to us as a class?
  • How can we adapt the classroom space to be conducive to cultivating enhanced communication?
  • How can we best connect our readings and discussions to our everyday lives?
  • How can we best support and engage with multiple learning styles throughout the semester?

With these questions as guides, she and her students construct the course syllabus. Once it’s created, students “sign a classroom agreement, acknowledging individual and group responsibility for their learning process.” (p. 42)

I suspect that’s an example that makes many of us a bit uncomfortable, and it does raise a number of issues. In most of our courses we aren’t at liberty to cover only those topics that interest us and our students. So, I’m not sharing the example as a recommendation. However, I do believe there’s merit in thinking about ourselves as learners who do things with students. Thinking that way has brought to mind all sorts of things I have learned with students—things about the content, about what helps them learn, things that have improved my teaching and changed what I do in courses. But I don’t think I ever considered what I was learning along with students.

I’m not just ready to give up on the idea of doing things for students. What about those things we do for students that arise out of our legitimate domains of expertise? We offer explanations, provide examples, and solve sample problems that help students understand. Now, I can see teachers doing too many things for students; things students should be doing for themselves. I also can see us not realizing that some things we think we do for students actually may benefit us more than them.

I like the idea of both; learning with students and doing things for students. Perhaps there’s a reciprocal relationship between the two. I end up doing beneficial things for students if I use what I have learned by doing things with them.

Reference: Blimme, K. C. (2013). Start with the syllabus: HELPing learning learn through class content collaboration. College Teaching, 61, 41-43.

  • I appreciate your way of thinking here, the push and pull you work with the idea. You are stimulated by the quote from the article but not completely "sold" on it.

    I think that it is sometimes tempting to be pushed into binaries when it comes to talking about teaching and learning, to accept or reject ideas and practices, to say that they work or don't work, when it's usually more complex than that.

    I wonder if, in part, that tendency has something to do with having regular discussions or arguments with folks about things that are that simple (and plenty of things are, even though most are not) but they refuse to see it that way. E.g. I've had this conversation more than once to no effect: making error in student writing a top priority does not eliminate error or otherwise improve student writing. I wonder if such encounters encourage me to adopt too simplistic an approach as part of trying to communicate clearly and unequivocally.

    Nuance rarely wins the day. We need more of it.

    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

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  • Zorlu

    Why think as "vs." ? Why can't it be "and"? Isn't there time, session, seminar, tutorial, etc. for both?

  • Helen Gordon

    I do teach with students. I have used the expertise of students to refine grading rubrics, course guides, syllabi, and assignments. Additionally I do myself every assignment. My course is richer and with each revision made by a student group the course materials have become more relevant. I love this process but it takes time. Which fore me is the issue. I have to plan ahead to engage this kind of student involvement. It remains well worth my time.

  • antonemgoyak

    I am reminded of some of Tim Elmore's research and comments about this generation we teach – this generation iY. This group wants to be involved but also wants to be led. They do not want a learning situation that is actually just an information dump, nor do they just want to be left on their own either.

    I think what is proposed in this post is a "both-and" and not necessarily an "either-or." I think we can get too limited in our opportunities for learning when something has to be one way or the other. I personally like the idea of creating classes for my learners but also want to be part of their discovery process by creating with my learners. These ideas speak of an engaged teacher and I believe both actually are spoken about in Weimer's book of Learner Centered Teaching. This is one reason I am a fan of Weimer's philosophy: my goal is always taking my learner to a changed life. And sometimes that means creating for the learner while at other times it means creating with the learner.

  • discoveryofjoy

    Co-creation is the new guiding philosophy in every service delivery. There is always a symbiotic relationship in all aspects of the nature that are beginning to be discovered and appreciated. Thanks for the article that reinforces the movement.

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  • Daniel C

    The issue of this post rests on the responsibility of the teacher as instructor. The responsibility of the teacher is to teach and for the learner to lead. While self-directed learning and learning styles are important the responsibility still lies on the teacher to lead.

    "You can not lead a horse to water, but you can salt his oats." This saying I believe bears truth to our discussion in that while knowing what students want to learn, their learning styles, and backgrounds is important and can be used to increase motivation for learning the job of choosing content is solely the teacher's.

    There is tension to swing the pendulum too far when trying to appease those who espouse experiential learning only. Experiential learning has some merit, but there needs to be a balance in education that sees the teacher as the developer of rote curriculum.

    • Timothy Darling

      Daniel, I think a teacher who salts the oats is the best kind of teacher, the kind that motivates interest in students and does not just present material. The concept in this article of creating a class "with" students rather than for them is a difficult way to work. The motivations of students are varied. I remember one fellow-student in a German class I took who candidly admitted she already knew German and was taking the class for an easy "A". She was unmotivated to learn anything at all. I would be hesitant to ask her to help me create a syllabus. In graduate level classes, I believe it is quite different.

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